US-Funded Broadcaster under Scrutiny for Enabling Tajikistan’s Strongman Rule

Emomali Rahmon (Wikimedia Commons)

by Peter Leonard

Since its founding at the outset of the Cold War, U.S.-funded news broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has sought to promote press freedoms and advance an American vision of democracy in some of the world’s most hardened dictatorships.

RFE/RL’s mission – to “provide what many people cannot get locally: uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate” – often puts its reporters in the way of harassment from undemocratic governments. As modern authoritarian regimes become more adept at muddying the waters with false narratives, that goal has never felt more urgent.

And yet, in Tajikistan, an economically wrecked and profoundly corrupt former Soviet republic on Afghanistan’s doorstep, RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, is facing Washington’s scrutiny. Critics see Radio Ozodi as overly accommodating to the strongman president, unintentionally enabling him to gloss over his abuses.

Over the course of a months-long investigation into Radio Ozodi, Eurasianet has heard multiple accounts, from almost a dozen current and former staffers, about contacts between Tajik officials and Ozodi editors. According to Eurasianet’s sources, that communication has over several years led to Prague-based senior editors at RFE/RL quashing or watering down stories – especially those that reflect badly on President Emomali Rahmon and his extended family.

As a result, critics say, Ozodi is ineffective in performing its watchdog responsibilities: to hold Tajikistan’s regime to account for its myriad human rights violations and report on the unbridled nepotism suffocating economic development.

This evaluation is echoed in an internal U.S. State Department memo that has been obtained by Eurasianet. The authors of that document argue that when Ozodi “parrots an authoritarian government’s messaging to its own people,” it risks undermining Washington’s standing across a strategically important region.

“The United States cannot risk further staining the American brand in an information space already dominated by anti-American disinformation and anti-democratic norms,” the memo reads.

While declining to comment on the contents of the memo, a spokesman for the State Department told Eurasianet that it is in “close communication” with RFE/RL about issues of concern.

“We will continue to track the situation, and to support RFE/RL as they investigate the matter,” the spokesman said.

For its part, the U.S. Agency for Global Media – or USAGM, the former Broadcasting Board of Governors, the entity that oversees RFE/RL’s work and guarantees its editorial independence – confirmed to Eurasianet that it had recently asked the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General “to aid in investigating Tajik Service programming and management.”

RFE/RL representatives at its Prague headquarters have pushed back on multiple accounts detailed below, but nonetheless acknowledged that some problems do exist and that they are working to address them.

Most of the people who have spoken to Eurasianet for this article have done so on strict condition of anonymity. They have pointed to the huge turnover of staff at Ozodi over the past decade. In addition, some sources cited concerns that relatives in Tajikistan could face reprisals as a consequence of speaking out.

A Bad Start

Ozodi’s day in Prague begins with a staff meeting at 7:30 a.m.; the team in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, joins by conference call. Reporters pitch their stories and try to persuade Tajik service director Sojida Djakhfarova, who leads the discussion, to accept their pitches.

As some Ozodi staff explain, items openly critical of the government are a hard sell. Stories questioning or even shedding light on the activities of the president’s family are mostly off-limits. One of Rahmon’s two sons, Rustam Emomali, is the mayor of Dushanbe. The president also has seven daughters – some of them hold important official posts, others have rich husbands with vast business interests. They and other relatives of the president by marriage are treated with utmost caution by Ozodi.

One recent example involved the woes of national air carrier Tajik Air, which is teetering on the precipice of financial collapse. At the start of the year, the airline abruptly announced it was cancelling all flights after its fuel supplier, a company called TZK, said it was suspending deliveries. The collapse of Tajik Air would be good news for the country’s only other airline, privately owned Somon Air. On January 22, as Tajik Air’s crisis was deepening, Rahmon fired its chairman and substituted him with the brother of the deputy chairman of lender Orionbank, a man with no known background in the aviation sector.

What Ozodi’s coverage failed to note was that TZK, Somon Air and Orionbank are all part of the business empire of Hasan Asadullozoda, the brother of President Rahmon’s wife. This omission was not for lack of knowledge. The link between Asadullozoda and Somon Air, for example, was mentioned in editorial planning documents seen by Eurasianet, and yet it did not feature in Ozodi’s coverage. (Ozodi earlier this year moved its offices into a business complex owned by a state aluminum-manufacturing giant understood to be controlled by Asadullozoda).

A Tajik-language article about Tajik Air dated January 4 was amended many weeks after the fact to insert Asadullozoda’s name. The cursory change was made following an inquiry on the matter.

Sources at RFE/RL have told Eurasianet that such omissions in coverage are commonplace. As one Ozodi staffer in Prague told Eurasianet, Djakhfarova often nixes pitches for pieces that could cast Tajikistan’s leadership in a poor light.

RFE/RL’s news-gathering operations span 26 languages in 22 countries. Many of their governments are hostile toward independent news organizations. So the managers of the various language services are regularly confronted with dilemmas that they would not face in more open environments.

Acknowledging tough decisions, one source told Eurasianet that Djakhfarova would often express concern that Ozodi’s stories could be twisted by other news outlets that did not have an on-the-ground presence in Tajikistan, and thus could not grasp the political nuances there.

The staffer, trying to convey the gist of Djakhfarova’s reluctance to post critical stories, paraphrased her thus: “All kinds of media – these English-language outlets who don’t understand the specifics of our situation – will just get their hands on these stories and write all kinds on nonsense about [how Tajikistan is a] dictatorship and so on.”

Eurasianet approached an RFE/RL spokesperson for an official response to the allegations made in this article, as well as responses from Djakhfarova and Abbas Djavadi, the director of programming for Central Asia.

In its written reply, RFE/RL denied that its staffers have ever colluded with Tajik officials or deleted stories at their request. But it acknowledged shortcomings and pledged to “ensure more comprehensive coverage going forward.” The broadcaster also said it is looking into a recent allegation of a case in which content was changed in response to instructions from Tajik authorities.

Party for None

Nothing gets treatment as frosty at Ozodi as the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, or IRPT.

Until four years ago, the IRPT had two seats in the national legislature. Experts on Tajikistan’s political scene long argued this in no way reflected the real support enjoyed by the party and that authorities had mercilessly rigged one election after another. IRPT lost even that scant representation in the March 2015 parliamentary elections.

Even when the IRPT lost its seats, leaving parliament bereft of any critical voices at all, party leader Muhiddin Kabiri, a soft-spoken, clean-shaven moderate, frustrated colleagues by refusing to pursue outright confrontation with the authorities.

It was of little use.

In early September 2015, the government claimed – although without providing any evidence – that then deputy defense minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda had mounted a coup attempt. In the days that followed, authorities began to insist that Nazarzoda was in cahoots with the IRPT. Nazarzoda was eventually cornered and killed by state security forces. In the weeks that followed, almost the entire leadership council of the IRPT was arrested and then sentenced to lengthy terms in prison. Only Kabiri managed to evade jail, since he was out of the country at the time.

The Tajik government then officially designated the party a terrorist organization. While Washington does not share that view, Ozodi coverage has tended to accept Dushanbe’s line with little qualification. It likewise tends to refer without skepticism to the events of September 2015 as an “attempted coup,” although that episode has never been subjected to any independent investigation.

Several reporters at RFE/RL and affiliated entities have provided multiple examples of instances when Djavadi, the director of programming for Central Asia, intervened to ensure that interviews with Kabiri, the IRPT leader, did not appear on the Ozodi website.

Shahida Tulaganova, a former reporter with a joint RFE/RL-Voice of America for-television project called Current Time, told Eurasianet that when she produced an interview with Kabiri, she was informed by her manager that Djavadi and Djakhfarova were putting up stiff resistance.

“There was a big, big thing from Sojida [Djakhfarova] and Abbas [Djavadi], that we cannot interview ‘terrorists,’” Tulaganova said. “I was banned from airing it. The compromise was that […] they published it online, but they didn’t allow us to air the interview.”

This January, Kabiri gave an interview to RFE/RL’s English-language service, which operates independently from the local-language services. In the interview, Kabiri rejected unsubstantiated government claims that the IRPT was directly involved in plotting a July 2018 terrorist attack in Tajikistan that was later claimed by the Islamic State. People familiar with the situation say that Djavadi resisted suggestions that the Kabiri interview be made available in either Tajik or Russian.

Because of these kinds of incidents, Ozodi reporters say they now refrain from pitching stories about IRPT.

“Since 2015 through to the current day, it is very rare for anybody to offer an IRPT story, because they know full well it won’t fly,” one of the Ozodi staffers in Prague said. “We have a clear sense of what the management wants.”

A survey by Eurasianet of Ozodi’s Tajik-language content over a six-month period from September to early March lends credibility to this narrative. News items on the IRPT posted during this period tended to cast it in a negative light. One piece from October 5 quoted government-affiliated clergy as warning that devout Muslims should reject the IRPT as to do otherwise was sinful.

When quizzed on this point, RFE/RL acknowledged “that Ozodi’s characterization of the IRPT has deviated from the international consensus and [that] management has corrected this issue.”

Self-censorship or Worse?

In other Central Asian countries, RFE/RL managers confront many of the same dilemmas faced in Tajikistan. But in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, RFE/RL correspondents operate under the radar, without official accreditation. In Tajikistan, the broadcaster has an officially recognized bureau. Maintaining that presence is deemed a priority for Ozodi.

In discussing allegations of editorial misjudgment by the Tajik service, RFE/RL’s leadership point to an episode in November 2016 that they argue illustrates the danger of crossing red lines.

On that occasion, the Foreign Ministry summoned six Dushanbe-based Ozodi correspondents and stripped them of their journalistic accreditations. The broadcaster said at the time that this was punishment for publishing an article about Rahmon’s daughter, Rukhshona Rahmonova, who had been appointed to a job in the Foreign Ministry. The credentials were reissued 10 days later.

The implication is twofold: that Ozodi is prepared to risk delving into the affairs of the presidential family, but that it is also sometimes necessary to engage in a degree of self-censorship to ensure the long-term survival of the Dushanbe bureau.

But Eurasianet’s sources insist that the relationship between Tajik authorities and some senior editors is not as antagonistic as the Rahmonova episode suggests. Four separate sources have described Djakhfarova and Djavadi openly stating before members of staff that they have discussed editorial decisions with officials in Tajik embassies in Berlin and Moscow, as well as a representative of the GKNB, Tajikistan’s KGB successor agency.

The State Department memo about Ozodi named the GKNB officer in question. This individual is cited by multiple current and former RFE/RL staff as a routine point of contact – so much so that he is referred to informally as Khurshed-aka, or “Uncle Khurshed.”

Eurasianet has independently established the identity of this GKNB officer, who has at some point been employed in the body’s Counterterrorism Department.

RFE/RL insists that the official known as Khurshed has spoken directly to Ozodi editors in Prague on only two occasions. “Khurshed called once to point out a factual error in a piece Ozodi published,” a spokesperson for the broadcaster said. “In the second call, he demanded that Ozodi take down an article. The Service Director refused.”

Ozodi staffers say the communications with Khurshed have been more frequent than that, but such claims cannot be independently verified.

In other alleged instances cited by Eurasianet sources, pointers on coverage have been conveyed through the Dushanbe staff. Current and former Ozodi staff have shared accounts of being summoned for consultations with GKNB officers. An Ozodi reporter in Dushanbe has told Eurasianet that when information about one such encounter was relayed to Prague, Djakhfarova seemed to downplay the incident.

RFE/RL disputes this version of events, insisting that a protocol is in place to ensure that unsolicited approaches from security services officers are reported up the chain of management.

“Given the frequency of harassment, though, it is likely that some reporters have sought to diffuse situations by themselves,” a spokesperson said.

Follow the Money

Tajikistan’s independent media sector has collapsed in recent years in the face of unrelenting pressure from the government. A UN special rapporteur in 2015 described the crackdown as a combination of “legal and extra-legal pressures.” Financial pressures have been just as punishing.

So when, in 2016, RFE/RL was scoping the market for a suitable local broadcaster to award contracts worth tens of thousands of dollars to air a 10-minute daily news bulletin produced by Ozodi, it appeared like a golden opportunity to support some ailing outlet.

But in the event, the contract was handed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, or BBG, under whose auspices RFE/RL then operated, to a radio station called Radio Imruz. The station is owned by a holding company called Oriono Media – just another part of the sprawling business empire controlled by Asadullozoda, the president’s brother-in-law.

Two companies bid for the award. One was Oriono Media, which would go on to secure the $46,800 annual contract. Eurasianet has learned that the other bid was from Asia-Plus Media Group, an independent news organization that operates a popular radio station with a comparable catchment area to Radio Imruz and a feisty newspaper that is the last independent print outlet to survive the waves of state repression against the press. Its bid was for around $25,000, a party close to the process told Eurasianet.

The USAGM, as BBG has been known since 2018, declined to confirm that Asia-Plus Media Group was behind the losing offer. But it did say that the rejected vendor’s proposal could not be accepted because of a stipulation that Ozodi should send its daily news bulletin a “day earlier to make changes in the content.”

And yet, once Radio Imruz began executing the contract, it too made editorial demands, according to a source at Ozodi.

“At the start, when we began paying them for the slot, they [producers at Radio Imruz] would tell us that what we were offering was unsuitable, too critical. So Djavadi told us that we should not send critical material,” the source said. “He said we should just send them things about culture, funny news, something positive.”

Even the soft news would on occasion fail to placate Radio Imruz. The radio station once complained that when Ozodi mentioned President Rahmon, it failed to use his full title: The Founder of Peace and National Unity – Leader of the Nation.

“We did not call him leader of the nation. We just switched the piece for another report,” the source told Eurasianet.

The State Department’s memo on Ozodi is coruscating about the Radio Imruz contract.

“This means that the U.S. government is effectively paying the Tajik government to use it as a third-party validator. And since most Central Asians associate RFE/RL with the U.S. government, Ozodi’s pro-government editorial bias has not only undermined the outlet’s credibility, but also that of the U.S. government,” the memo reads.

In 2017, when it came time to roll over the contract, Radio Imruz again filed a bid, for the same amount. Asia-Plus Media Group was not informed of the tender.

But another bidder, whose identity USAGM said it could not disclose, did submit a bid. It offered to do the same job for around $800,000 – a startlingly unrealistic proposal. Faced with that choice, BBG opted again for Radio Imruz.

Radio Imruz is now in its third year of this arrangement, which has to date netted it more than $140,000.

RFE/RL rejects parts of the account that Eurasianet has pieced together.

“Imruz has refused to broadcast some Ozodi news items that contain critical reporting about the Tajik government. But Imruz has no editorial control over Ozodi programs, and Ozodi never alters its content to accommodate Imruz,” an RFE/RL spokesperson said.

What Next?

Over the course of Eurasianet’s inquiries into Ozodi, which began in mid-2017, the stance at RFE/RL has shifted to acknowledging problems fulfilling its mission.

Criticism is increasing and coming from new directions.

Earlier this year, an international group of Central Asia-focused scholars led by John Heathershaw of the University of Exeter and Edward Lemon of the Wilson Center submitted a letter to the broadcaster registering their concern at what they described as Ozodi’s lack of robust coverage. The letter, based on close scrutiny of years of coverage, argued that Ozodi’s reporting had at times become “indistinguishable from press releases written by the Tajik government.” The letter went on to note that Ozodi’s reason for existence was “to challenge and counter” the government’s “deliberate misinformation.”

This kind of public criticism does, at first glance, appear to have had some effect. Earlier this month, just days after senior RFE/RL management met with State Department officials in Washington to discuss the health of the broadcaster’s Tajik service, Ozodi ran a piece about an ailing political prisoner, Mahmadali Hayit, who has said he fears for his life.

But for Ozodi’s most ardent detractors, like Mahmudjon Faizrahmon, an exiled spokesman for IRPT, the banned opposition party, the trend for more robust reporting is just a blip.

“I believe this is a temporary tactic,” Faizrahmon said. “I think the Tajik Service needs real root-and-branch reform that will remain in place for the long-term.”

Peter Leonard is Eurasianet’s Central Asia editor. Reprinted, with permission, from Eurasianet.

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